First Monday Library Chat: Rijksmuseum

Today’s First Monday Library Chat will kick-off a series of blog posts featuring the Rijksmuseum, the museum of the Netherlands, located in Amsterdam. Within the main building is the Rijksmuseum Research Library, which holds the most extensive art history library in the  Netherlands. Like the museum, the Library’s primary collecting focus is Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages onwards.

Today I’m chatting with Geert-Jan Koot, Head of the Rijksmuseum Research Library, and Dr. Marjolijn Bol, University Lecturer for Conservation & Restoration and Art History at the University of Amsterdam and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hamburg.

The Rijksmuseum has just undergone a significant restoration project. Can you tell us a bit more about this? How has it affected the Research Library?

New spaces have been designed for the Rijksmuseum, and old spaces have been given a new meaning. It was recognized that the building had been neglected. The museum had been turned into a labyrinth. Every aid to orientation had been cut away or camouflaged.  The library too, was completely hidden, and not accessible from the main building. Visitors had to go outside and use a separate entrance.

The restoration of the library hall was part of the concept of the New Rijksmuseum. This means that the alterations that were made in the past were reversed and the original features, which were still largely discernible, properly restored. For the first time in history, the general public can now access this part of the museum. The use of the library will now be closest to the architect’s conception of the building being more accessible.

Could you talk about the relationship between the Rijksmuseum and the Rijksmuseum Research Library? It strikes me that Art History is a discipline where access to both museum and library collections would be equally important to and utilized by your patrons.

According to the Rijksmuseum’s vision, the reading room in the library hall is intended for visitors who, inspired by what’s on offer in the museum, want to go into further detail on the history and art of the Netherlands and elsewhere. Museum visitors are welcome to look something up or linger to enjoy their visit a little longer. There is no doubt that it is a unique experience for visitors of the Rijksmuseum to get a look inside this magnificent space. Nowadays one might find more museum visitors in the library hall than scholars. However, compared to the time before the reading room in the library hall opened its doors, the number of scientific library users grew as well. In the attached study room the special collections can be examined: rare books, prints, drawings and photographs. Because of its lighting conditions and calmness, the study room is also ideally suited for scholarly research.

In 2014, the Rijksmuseum launched an extensive fellowship program for pre-doctoral students to pursue dissertation research that shows a clear relation to the museum’s collections and expertise. The library will become the meeting place and the research center for the ten fellows we hope to welcome this and in following years.  The aim of the library is to provide research resources and to facilitate research, thus strengthening international research on Dutch art.

Rijksmuseum Library Reading Room
One of three tables in the reading room in the Rijksmuseum’s library hall

Your artists’ recipes are, of course, of great interest to readers of this blog. What recipe-related items do you have in your collection? Are they primarily in print or manuscript?

The Rijksmuseum collection of art technological sources covers primary documentation concerning the practical aspects on the application and use of techniques, materials, tools and machines for the making of objects of art and culture from the middle ages until today. The extensive collection of artists’ manuals and drawing books is also of eminent importance.

This collection lists over 950 printed and written art treatises, dating from 1525 to the present day. Most of them are printed, only a few are manuscripts. A list of these titles is available in our web catalogue.

Many decades ago the museum started collecting these books and this collection is growing annually with a few dozen titles. New titles are publicized in our lists of acquisition highlights.

A fine example of a recently acquired early and rare German recipe book is the Künstbuechlin, gerechten gründtlichen gebrauchs aller kunstbaren Werckleüt (Augsburg, 1535).

16th century recipe book
Künstbuechlin (Augsburg, 1535)

Why does the Rijksmuseum have this special collection of artists’ recipe books?

Visitors to the museum and people interested in art and culture often like to know how objects were made and also from what materials they were made. To stimulate these questions, the Rijksmuseum performs research into the history of artistic materials and techniques. This research improves conservation methods and the restoration of the objects in the museum. The library contributes to these goals by bringing together a collection of international artists manuals and instruction books and recipes.

How are these recipes helpful for learning about artists’ processes and materials?

The study of art technology is increasingly recognized as an important source of information. This is not only to determine the material history of an art object and its conservation, but also to contribute to knowledge about the cultural aspects of the production of a work of art: aesthetic, economic, social, religious, etc.

Our aim is to make the collection of recipe books in the library more widely and freely available. A project to digitize these practical treatises is about to be realized. The proposal to connect the artist’s recipe book collection to the ColourContext database of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin has been well received.

I understand Dr. Marjolijn Bol’s recent course Art Technological Source Research at the University of Amsterdam held some classes at the Rijksmuseum Research Library. Can you talk more about the pedagogical value of bringing student groups to a special collections library? What extra value does this offer?

In an age in which more and more historical sources are made accessible online, it is of great value to be able to confront and familiarize students with original source material. This teaches them not only where to find the originals, but also why it is still very important to study them in situ.

Thanks, Geert-Jan and Marjolijn, for chatting with me!

The Rijksmuseum Research Library’s reading room is open Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm. If you wish to view rare or fragile works, please email studiezaal@rijksmuseum.nl to make an appointment.


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